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Can Squamish retain some of its horse culture?

Vancouver's Southlands may hold lessons for Squamish's equestrian community

In the not-too-distant past, Squamish was a more horsey town.

Horses were seen in the 1981 Squamish Days Parade, for example. 

"We don't see horses in the parade very often anymore," said local amateur historian Eric Andersen. 

And did you know Squamish used to have an event called Horsecapades? 

Andersen says the event was held through the 1950s and 1960s.

These days, horses are becoming a rarer sight as Squamish grows and densifies. 

Local equestrians worry that sooner rather than later, there will be no properties with horses or horses themselves seen in the heart of Squamish. 

But urban growth within the district doesn't necessarily mean horse riding and barns are relegated to the distant rural outskirts. 

The community of Southlands, within Vancouver, shows that maintaining a slice of equestrian life is possible. Southlands demonstrates for Squamish that a strong riding club that focuses on being an anchor for the community, along with wider resident support and advocacy, goes a long way in creating and maintaining a horse-friendly town.

A bit of Squamish horse history

Before establishing the equestrian facilities near Brennan Park, there were Cheekye Stables and the Paradise Valley Horse Ranch at the Easter Seal Camp during the 1960s, Andersen said. 

In his piece, The Horse corral at Winnipeg Street, Andersen recalls that in 1972, work crews uncovered some horseshoes on Winnipeg Street. 

Alex Munro Sr. used to have a horse corral, livery stables and blacksmith shop toward Second Avenue. 

According to Andersen, Munro would buy wild horses that had been rounded up in the wintertime in the Chilcotin and have them brought down by train.

“In the corral at Winnipeg and Second Avenue, he would break these horses in," he writes. 

"Today, the Dollar Tree store is where Munro's horse corral once stood – where neighbourhood children would hang out, keenly watching the activities of the horse whisperer."

Mayor comes by horse

The Squamish Valley has long been home to horses. 

Randall Lewis of the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation) tells of his late great-grandfather, Captain Louie (Lewis) who received funds from a surrender of land in Vancouver on the Kitsilano reserve. "If they did not surrender the [Indigenous Reserve] land, the provincial Crown was going to expropriate the IR for CP Rail," he said.  

"The funds received were used to buy 18 Clydesdale horses in the mid-1900s to use for horse logging in the Upper Squamish Valley," Lewis said. 

"This is how the Upper Squamish road was built."

Lewis also said the former mayor of Squamish, Pat Brennan, used to come by horse to the Cheekye reserve to visit Lewis' father. Over a few drinks, the men would chat, play music and sing. 

"When they played, my dad and later Pat Brennan — after many cups of courage — would sing many songs," Lewis said.

Current situation

However, in recent years, the equestrian culture of the town is increasingly being lost as properties that hold barns are sold off and converted to horse-less sites. 

And local horse trainers, riders and owners tell of residents not knowing how to behave around the animals or being negative about them on trails. 

Andersen, who is also a sitting municipal councillor, said he had received feedback that the insurance for keeping horses is high, as is the cost of buying hay from the Squamish Valley or Pemberton. It is tough to dispose of manure in town after the District stopped accepting manure at the landfill six years ago because it was running out of space and considered the material highly compostable. 

The issues

These issues and more are familiar to Jordan Wong, president of the Squamish Valley Equestrian Association (SVEA), which promotes multi-discipline equine sport and recreation in Squamish.

Wong has ridden horses since she was five years old and is a local trainer operating Platinum Equestrian

She is based out of Centennial Stables on Centennial Way — a private horse boarding and training stable.

Recently, the SVEA has been finalizing a 15-year deal with the District of Squamish for its lands, which the association leases from the municipality. The property is located near the heart of downtown at 39025 Loggers Lane, close to the recreation centre. 

The association has been working closely with District staff to get the deal done and permits lined up. 

The SVEA is also currently raising money for an indoor arena on its leased lands. 

The association needs to raise $100,000 in donations to erect it and add lighting.

The indoor ring will allow for more equestrian activity throughout the year. 

Wong also hopes the club can host more events. 

She sees that the town's growth is causing pressure on the horse community. 

When properties, such as those along Finch, are bought up and no longer have horses, she said the equestrian community gets further dispersed and diminished. 

She said that Squamish equestrians’ primary concerns are increased development pushing out horse properties and horse folks increasingly unable to get from point A to point B safely. 

"A lot of it is a density problem that we're a bit concerned about," Wong said, noting that the amount of vehicle traffic in town is becoming an increasing issue on the roads and the trails. 

"We don't have any designated paths around for us," she said, noting that horse riders share some trails, like the Legacy Trail, and riders are grateful for that, but designated horse trails would be helpful. 

The association worries that while the majority of locals support local horse culture, the minority who don't may result in a turning of that tide. 

About "90% of people are super happy to share the trail with us; super happy to see the horses out there. And then there's that 10% that, like with the horse poop, they get really upset with us about that," Wong said. 

She said along Centennial Way, riders are relegated to the side of the road, and, increasingly, drivers speed by and don't give the horses enough room, which could be dangerous. 

Stephanie Golder, also part of SVEA, owns Squamish Therapeutic Horse Riding in Squamish. She teaches students on Pipps, a 10-year-old American Paint. 

She also teaches clients who own or lease their horses.

Standing in a private barn on Raven Drive, which the owners rent out, Golder laments the rapid loss of barns in Squamish. 

"There are two more down at the end of this road. One has sold. So, the horses are all gone from there. And then the next one is on the market to be sold, as well. So that's going to be two more barns gone from this area alone," she said. 

"It seems so fast, how quickly the development has happened. So we're having to really adapt, and the trails have gotten so much busier, and just the streets are so much busier."

Both Wong and Golder say that having horses accessible from downtown ensures the sport itself is accessible to youth in the area. 

"That's why we love this Brennan Park area... because it's close to the trail networks and the trails are nice and safe. I have some children who will bike to lessons because the trails are so well utilized, or some will get the bus to Brennan Park and walk down to the different barns."

Popular sport

Both trainers said that the popularity of riding is not in question. Golder, for example, has more interest than she can accommodate. She has about 12 people on a waitlist for lessons. 

"The demand is ever-increasing for horse riding lessons, horse experiences — anything to do with horses and keeping in touch with nature is a big thing as well. Because not everybody that comes here does mountain biking."

According to Golder, SVEA has 71 members total and a plan to grow.

"Part of our long-term plan is to continue building our membership, in particular, bringing in memberships from equestrians who do not live in Squamish," Golder said. "To do this, the SVEA plans to continue hosting clinics, competitions, and fun days that are attractive to equestrians in the whole Sea to Sky Corridor."

Southlands oasis

Wong and Golder point to the Southlands community of Vancouver as evidence that increased urbanization doesn't have to mean equestrian culture is lost altogether. 

No one is saying that Squamish should become the affluent, low-density, rural location that Southlands is. 

After all, the median household income in Dunbar Southlands is 74% higher than the national average. 

But perhaps there are lessons from Southlands — equestrians protecting horse culture and equestrian lands it has, and horse folks advocating for their lifestyle — that could be learned to keep Squamish from losing its horse culture altogether. 

"I have got to give it to the people who originally developed that area; they were smart about making sure that it remained a horse area like that,” Wong said. “They had the foresight to think about that. And I feel like that just originally wasn't an issue in Squamish because we were such a nowhere town, right? But now that it's become what it has…, unfortunately, it's a bit too late," Wong added. "It is what it is. There's nothing we can change about that part of it. But if we can find a way to be accommodated into [what Squamish has become], that'd be fantastic."

Horses rule

Indeed, a short 11-minute drive southwest from the heart of downtown Vancouver and suddenly streets are lined with trees, vehicles slow, and horses get the right of way.

Various sources cite Southlands as unique in Canada for its rural nature despite its proximity to an urban centre. 

It is often repeated that there are more horses than people in the community. 

According to the Southlands Community Association, Southlands is the oldest neighbourhood in Vancouver and is on the unceded homelands of the Musqueam. 

There is a long and complicated history to the area, but a foundation of modern Southlands is the Southlands Plan, which was finalized in 1988.

The plan was created because the area faced increasing development pressures. 

The nugget of the plan is that guidelines are in place, which maintains its horse-friendly nature.

The club is the heart of Southlands

On a visit to the area, several Southlands residents told The Squamish Chief that the Southlands Riding Club anchors the community.

In 1943, the club was formed as the Southlands Riding and Polo Club. 

It currently has about 400 members.

The club's 16 acres of greenspace includes an indoor arena, covered arena, five outdoor rings for dressage and jumping, a large field, a cross-country course, half-mile track, covered and open lunge rings/round pens and event stabling, according to its website. 

The non-profit club's current general manager, Warren Kean, told The Squamish Chief the role of the organization and facility in the community is always top of mind. 

"Everything we do ... we're always conscious of the community impact — just the very nature of being a central hub to the community, and when the majority of horses come to the club to ride," he said, noting that a newsletter is sent out weekly that lets people know not just what is going on at the club, but within the community, too. 

Asked how the club has stayed relevant and thriving, Kean said the goal is always to be grassroots and accessible, despite being in an affluent area. 

"Making the exclusive inclusive," he said. “Everyone kind of assumes that because it's a small, private club, that it's expensive. In reality, it's like $2,000 a year to be a full-time member," he said. "In everything that we do, we're very cognizant of cost. And while the entire sport obviously has a high threshold of entry, we're trying to not be that." 

Riders can get a day pass, a weekly pass, and so on.

"We have basically a membership for everybody," he said, meaning the club can draw those interested in horses from various corners of the city and beyond. 

The club's horse shows have the lowest cost of entry of any in Canada, he said. Within the clubhouse at the Southlands Riding Club, the price of a beer is kept purposefully low, too.

"I don't want you walking into our clubhouse and thinking, 'Who are these hoity-toity country club people?’ Because it is the exact opposite of that."

Not horsing around

Kean said that despite it being an example for other communities, Southlands is also facing pressures that could threaten its equestrian culture.

Thus, Kean said the club works to be an advocate as well. 

"We're trying to [be a] champion for horses; we're trying to be the champion to keep it the community that everyone loves, despite it slowly transitioning into not quite what everyone has known it to be," he said. 

While some folks in Southlands who spoke to The Squamish Chief praised Kean for being a true “horse person,” steering the club in a positive direction, he threw credit back to the community. 

He said that if a commercial vehicle is seen driving too fast in the area, residents will give the driver what-for in no time, thus self-regulating the behaviour of those who enter the community. 

"I've seen a lot of a lot of self-management or self-policing, I think, in the neighbourhood. Which I think is great," he said, adding when companies come down to do work and are respectful of the equestrian nature of the area, they are rewarded with repeat business. 

Kean said that advocacy for equestrian sports comes with a stigma that is hard to combat — that it is for rich folks and 550-kilogram horses.

He said to keep the club viable into the future, he is looking to expand from its passive revenue generation — from memberships, trainers, lessons and the like — to more dependable income through offering stabling at the club. 

Historically, the organization didn't want to do this as it could threaten the other stables in the area, but there are fewer of them these days, and everyone has more than they can handle.

"Then we can control how many horses are in Southlands or at very least ensure that there's a minimal amount … that can support our business operationally," he said, thus ensuring the anchor of the community — the club — stays that way. 

"Those [other local] commercial stables, they have lists for days of people. There are waiting lists to get into any stable, and we're losing all the private stables as well. So I don't think that we would ever conflict or take any business away from them. What we would do is just ensure that there's a viable amount of equestrians and horses in Southlands. Because our club could become a mini-mall pretty quickly," he said. 

Those who live in Southlands that The Squamish Chief spoke to, including some folks not in this story, mentioned the current pressures being felt in Southlands. 

The temptation for old-time barns and homeowners to sell and be able to move somewhere to get much more is ever-present. And while there is a requirement on some properties for barn structures, local residents pointed to a few that were clearly built to look like a barn but are being used for other things, with nary a horse in sight.

Community first

Larry Emrick has lived in Southlands for 22 years. 

He keeps six horses on his property. 

He drove The Squamish Chief around the community, pointing out the strongest advocates for the area's equestrian culture.

"I think part of the thing is that because we've got a growing population down here. And obviously, when you've got a growing population, a portion of them will always be interested in horses. So they've always got a few people coming along who are interested in having horses," he said. 

Reflecting on his own daughter and what being a horse person does for young people, women, in particular, he said he can think of nothing better for building self-esteem. 

"To me, there isn't a better thing for girls and young women to do. I mean, it gives them such confidence and skills," he said. 

The advocacy of folks in the area and their confidence in their right to be there is what helps maintain the character, he said. 

"If you're going to come to Southlands, you're going to live by the rules. The horses dictate the rules ... the equestrian ethic dictates lifestyle," he said. 

"There would be hellish fights if they ever tried to take the language out of the Agricultural Land Reserve," he said, as an example. 

Folks show up at meetings, write to City Hall, and speak up whenever necessary to support the equestrian nature of their home. 

If anyone doesn't like the horses, the attitude of long-time residents is that the horses were there first, Emrick said. 

"In terms of stuff like manure on the trails, our argument is it's good for the roses, you know? If you don't like the manure, pick it up and put it in your dirt." 

Emrick credits the City of Vancouver with supporting equestrians in Southlands over the years. 

"The city has been hugely, hugely supportive of the equestrian community," he said. "Any issues that come up with a city, they're attentive to our needs." 

His advice for Squamish equestrians is to advocate more for themselves and get "the community onside." 

Limits for Squamish

While Southlands has much to teach Squamish, there are limits to how far those in the district can copy the Vancouver community. 

As Wong noted, Squamish is further down the development path than Southlands was when it was formed. 

Many of the horses and barns are already gone from the district. 

And Squamish doesn’t have the same overall protection of being Agricultural Land Reserve land.

There are 4,066 combined hectares of ALR within the District of Squamish and Electoral Area D. 

Of that total, 25% (797 hectares) are located in Squamish, and 75% (3,269 hectares) are located in Electoral Area D.

The ALR is a provincial land use zone that was designated in 1973, in which agriculture uses — such as the keeping of horses — are recognized as the priority.

For comparison, there are approximately 123 hectares of ALR located in Vancouver Southlands, according to the Provincial Agricultural Land Commission.

Also, the Southlands Plan in place at Vancouver City Hall protects Southlands. Squamish doesn’t have the same protection to keep it horse-friendly within Squamish. 

Also, even in Southlands, given the amount of money property is going for, some residents are selling. Current listings range from $2 to $18 million. 

It is clear driving around the community that at least a couple of the barn-like structures on properties aren’t being used for animals.

At what point will the horse-loving folks who live there be far outnumbered by those who don’t? 

Only time will tell. 

District perspective

The Squamish Chief sent the District of Squamish a series of questions regarding ways and efforts to preserve equestrian lands in town. 

Asked if the District  envisions a place for equestrian folks within Squamish proper in the long-term future, Boguski said that this is something that “could be contemplated in the future.”

The District said covenants could be put on current properties in town that hold barns. 

“This can be done through Land Title Act Section 219. Covenants with property owners to ensure the protection, preservation, conservation, maintenance and/or restoration of land, and/or other specified features within a municipality,” said Rachel Boguski, spokesperson for the District.

Asked about the possibility of creating specific Squamish trails for horses, Boguski said, “multi-use trails are the accepted norm in Squamish given the multitude of activities the trails are used for.”

Regarding the further expansion of equestrian uses in Squamish, Boguski noted that “the future of equestrian sports is very much captured in the Brennan Park Fields and Lands Master Plan on the condition that they continue to see an increase in participating numbers.”

In terms of signage to help educate or warn drivers and residents about possible horses in the area, Boguski said signage currently exists to notify trail users that horses may be encountered on multi-use paths.

Advocacy is key

Southlands Heritage Farm is always a hive of activity. 

Not only does it host a literal school, Southlands Farm Outdoor School, and summer camps, it offers riding lessons, hosts birthday parties and farm visits, a pumpkin patch and much more. 

Jen Maynard, the owner of the farm, who lives in a 101-year-old farmhouse on the property, has been a vocal advocate for the area. 

She has lived in the community since she was 14. Her husband was born there, as were the couple's three children. 

She said she wasn't always outspoken, but the planning for Southlands turned her into an advocate. 

"We were determined. I mean, I hate talking in public. I'd rather walk through fire. I actually learned to stand up and speak my mind. And it was good for me. But a lot of people really spoke up, who normally wouldn't," she said. 

 "In 1985, the city initiated a local area planning program … and it lasted two years," she added. "There were 102 meetings. There'd be between 100 and 150 people every week, every Wednesday for two years, and I was at every single meeting.”

Later, in around 1999 or 2000, Maynard said a developer-influenced group took over the local ratepayers association. In response, several Southlands homeowners banded together to form the Friends of Southlands Society

"And we still have that going. And then when there's an issue, the president writes a letter to the city, and we're kind of recognized by the city. And we're a registered society. So, we have a bit of a voice," she said. "That's been a good thing because it's given us another voice that can counteract people with a vested interest in money rather than just a vested interest in enjoying the area. Maybe that is what [Squamish equestrians] could do is start your own Squamish Protection Society or something like that. Make up a name that has a good acronym."

Squamish not alone

Horseback riding and equestrian remain a widespread interest not just for Squamish folks but provincewide. 

The Horse Council BC, which has represented horse industry interests in the province since 1980, has 24,891 members. 

"Equestrian sport, either recreational or competitive, draws people of all ages, really making it a sport for life," said a spokesperson for the council in an email to The Squamish Chief. 

But the council notes that many communities face development pressure that can eat away at equestrian assets. 

"Agricultural Land Reserves help with protecting farmland and ensuring space for livestock. We work to support the ALR wherever possible," the spokesperson said. 

Find more information on its website.

How readers can help

The Horse Council BC shared with The Squamish Chief its "Three Cs of Trail Etiquette" for locals to follow: common sense, communication and courtesy. 

1. Common Sense: Common sense begins with planning your trip and continues with your encounters with others on the trail. Although trail travellers' protocol calls for the most mobile to yield the right of way, assess the situations and use common sense to determine who can get out of the way most easily. In ideal cases, cyclists yield to everyone, and hikers yield to horses. 

A loaded string of horses going uphill always has the right of way, and a cyclist climbing a steep pitch will appreciate the same consideration. 

2. Communication: A friendly word of greeting reassures horses and lets others know of your presence. Communicate with other trail users to warn them of dangers or adverse trail conditions and share an exceptional view stop or picnic area you found. It is a good idea to tell others how many people are in your group, so they can prepare to pass them on the trail. Speak up if you see someone acting irresponsibly. 

3. Courtesy: Treat other trail users with courtesy. User conflicts can lead to trail closures.


This story was produced through Journalists for Human Rights', Solutions Journalism Program, supported by The McConnell Foundation